How the Fort Lauderdale airport shooting spun out of control

By: MEGAN O'MATZ, DAVID FLESHLER and STEPHEN HOBBS, The Sun-Sentinel

Updated:
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) - The 12 hours of turmoil that engulfed Fort Lauderdale's airport after a gunman slaughtered five travelers in January was sparked by false reports of gunshots and aggravated by authorities who struggled to manage the crisis.

Security screeners abandoned their posts and ran; a swarm of police officers terrified passengers and jammed the emergency radio system; and airport leaders were unable or unprepared to assist thousands of stranded travelers, a Sun Sentinel investigation found.

It took just 90 seconds for sheriff's deputies to capture the lone gunman in the deadliest airport shooting in U.S. history. But nearly an hour and a half later, the uneasy calm that had returned was shattered when the false-gunfire reports swept through the airport's four terminals.

Some of the earliest reports came from law enforcement officers.

"Didn't you hear that?" a U.S. Customs officer said as he ran through the airport. "Didn't you hear shots fired?"

It was one in a series of missteps that sent a controlled tragedy spiraling into pandemonium, the Sun Sentinel found.

Panicked passengers dove for cover in the terminals, sprinted down jetways onto planes and poured out of emergency exits onto airport tarmacs. In the escape from the initial shooter and the later stampede, at least 53 people were taken to the hospital for heat stroke, chest pains, panic attacks, low blood sugar, trouble breathing and broken bones. Some had been trampled.

"I got pushed down to the floor, and everybody was running on my back," said Aurica Skukan, 58, of Hollywood, Fla., a Silver Airways customer service agent who was hospitalized after the later panic.

The Sun Sentinel's investigation revealed that deficiencies in training, communications and passenger support made a challenging and terrifying situation worse.

Through documents, interviews with witnesses and an exhaustive review of radio transmissions, reporters were able to piece together an analysis of the day's tumult. They found:

-Law enforcement officers inadvertently fueled the reports of additional gunfire. At least three shouted into their radios that they heard shots long after the gunman had been subdued.

-Transportation Security Administration agents abandoned their posts and ran or hid. It's what they are trained to do -- but it shocked passengers who looked to them for help.

-Plainclothes officers panicked travelers who saw people in street clothes running with guns.

-The crush of police who flooded the airport overwhelmed the county's antiquated radio system, hampering communications.

-As the hours wore on, authorities failed to guide or inform terrified passengers about what was happening or when they would get help.

-Evacuation plans were inadequate. Even after the Sheriff's Office declared the airport safe that evening, people were stranded until the early morning. About 700 ended up spending the night at a makeshift rescue center at Port Everglades, some sleeping on a concrete floor.

Destructive as those lapses were, they could have been anticipated, the Sun Sentinel found.

Airport leaders say the mass exodus of an entire airport filled with 12,000 travelers was unprecedented. But as recently as August, at two larger airports, false gunfire reports sent people running onto tarmacs from multiple terminals.

And in 2013, in Los Angeles, panicked passengers and airport employees fled onto the tarmac after a gunman strolled through, squeezing off shots, killing a TSA agent and wounding three others.

Officials who studied those panics predicted that others would occur as travelers grew more fearful of terrorism and mass shootings. Some experts have called for a new model of airport security to deal with this new reality at American airports.

Many key reforms recommended after those events - including guidelines on the handling of evacuations, crowd control, communications and worker training - were either not adequate or not in place in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 6, or at most other airports across the country.

Congress had a chance to mandate reforms in 2015, when it passed a law requiring airports to devise active shooter security plans. But while the law recommended plans for evacuations and caring for travelers, none of those steps were required.

All might have alleviated the hardships in Fort Lauderdale.

"Nobody knew anything," said Gary Bryant, a Canadian tourist who was stranded on the Fort Lauderdale tarmac and in a hangar for more than 10 hours.

"These are enormous facilities that are designed to funnel thousands of people through them," he said in an interview. "Yet nobody had any idea what they were doing. Somebody's got to be responsible for this."

No one has taken responsibility yet. The TSA says its employees are trained to run or hide in active shooter situations and only as a last resort fight off an attacker. The county government, which operates the airport, says Broward Sheriff Scott Israel was in charge.

Israel told the Sun Sentinel his focus was "to make sure nobody else died that day." Law enforcement's primary focus was making sure no other shooters lurked in the airport, he said.

"Everything was done excellently," Israel said, although he acknowledged that "quite a lot of confusion" took place. He described the situation as "controlled chaos."

From calm to crisis

The terror unleashed on Jan. 6 began when a mentally disturbed man, Esteban Santiago, 27, bought a one-way ticket from Anchorage to Fort Lauderdale. He checked just one bag: a case carrying a semiautomatic handgun and two magazines of 9 mm bullets.

Upon arrival in Terminal 2 at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, he collected the case from a baggage claim carousel, went into a restroom to load the gun and returned to the baggage claim area. There, in clear view of a security camera, he coolly started firing, killing five passengers and wounding six before throwing down his gun and lying on the floor in surrender about 1 p.m.

Law enforcement officers secured the crime scene and herded hundreds of passengers displaced by the shooting in Terminal 2. In the airport's three other terminals, it remained business as usual, as people watched accounts of the shooting on TV but remained calm.

Then, at 2:20 p.m., a report of additional gunshots crackled over a county fire rescue radio. Within 40 seconds, another radio transmission discounted the report as false, but the possibility of another shooter had already spread and more reports of gunfire quickly followed.

Radio transmissions archived by the audio streaming website Broadcastify show how officers contributed to the unsubstantiated reports of gunshots as people fled for safety. Like so many of the travelers that day, police were convinced they heard gunfire.

"I heard the shooting from inside the garage. Across from Terminal 4," an officer said at 2:23 p.m. over a police radio.

"Shots fired, shots fired. Terminal 4," an officer said at 2:25 p.m., with screaming in the background.

"Terminal 1. Shots fired," another officer said seconds later.

"Active shooter, 50 Terminal Drive, Southwest Airlines," a dispatcher reported.

Within seven minutes, terrified passengers and employees in all four terminals were on the run.

At 2:27 p.m., the Broward Sheriff's Office put out a call for backup, summoning deputies from all regions of the county.

"Strip out the districts. Send everybody to the airport."

What began as a tragic shooting now appeared to be a full-blown disaster. "There's multiple shots fired, multiple shooters, multiple locations," a dispatcher reported at 2:30 p.m.

Israel said concerns escalated when a woman near Terminal 1 was found on the ground bleeding, though it turned out she had been bitten by a police dog as she dove into a sheriff's van for cover.

A Sun Sentinel survey determined that at least 840 officers from local, state and federal agencies responded to the airport that day. The number is surely conservative; it does not include personnel from multiple departments and agencies such as the FBI that refused to say how many people they sent.

The airport's security director, Frank Capello, said he was told that as many as 2,400 officers answered the sheriff's call. He did not have specifics or confirmation, and the Sheriff's Office would not comment. If true, that number would be four times as many as responded to the 2013 Los Angeles airport shooting.

The crush of law enforcement officers overloaded the county's aged public safety radio system, delaying communications and keeping some officers from accessing it, said Jose DeZayas, who manages the county's system. Some police could hear but not talk.

Armed officers in civilian clothes frightened Fort Lauderdale travelers who thought they might be gunmen.

Frank Meyers of Columbus, Ohio, a traveler in Terminal 1, told the Sun Sentinel that he saw a man with a pistol, in civilian clothes, running toward his daughter. Although someone quickly said the man was a police officer, Meyers said, "He scared the hell out of everybody."

Another traveler posted video online of a man in a sweatshirt, jeans, ball cap and backpack, running in a terminal, gun in hand. The Broward Sheriff's Office told the Sun Sentinel the man on the video is a law enforcement officer. One witness told the Sun Sentinel he had a badge around his neck. Seen from behind in the video, he is not recognizable as law enforcement.

Even police seemed confused. Police surrounded a man in a white T-shirt who may have been one of their own. They noted on the radio that he "possibly has a badge."

Confusion and misinformation also arose after the shooting at Los Angeles International Airport in 2013. Congressional representatives blamed it on delays in establishing a single command post, which is essential to coordination and communication in a crisis.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, whose district includes the Fort Lauderdale airport, said the same problem occurred here.

While the initial chaos unfolded, the airport lacked a single command center, leaving uncoordinated responses from police and firefighters, she said. "When they all began functioning out of the airport's Emergency Operations Center, and actually went there and activated it," she said, "they were coordinating more."

Wasserman Schultz said she's heard from police and rescue workers nationally that they need "better coordination, better interoperability, better ability to communicate while an event is unfolding."

After a shooting scare at John F. Kennedy International Airport in August, state and federal experts found that police may have worsened the situation by drawing their weapons. And TSA agents, seeing police with guns drawn, began to run, stoking fear among the public.

'TSA skedaddled'

Passengers in Fort Lauderdale said they were surprised by how TSA officers reacted to reports of gunshots.

"TSA skedaddled," said Meyers, the Ohio man. "All the uniformed people in there ran. They all ran just like everybody else."

A Maryland couple told the county that TSA and airport security personnel "pushed people aside." A British Columbia couple, Cam and Linda Vallee, said a TSA worker used their daughter's back "as a stepping stool to get over her and ahead of the screaming crowd."

TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said the agency investigated two complaints and, after reviewing airport surveillance video, found them to be baseless.

She said some TSA agents risked their own safety to help passengers. "TSA employees - like so many others that day - were heroic in their efforts to protect and shelter others," she said.

TSA agents are not law enforcement officers. They are unarmed, and if there's an active shooter nearby, they are taught to run and hide. Only as a last resort are they supposed to fight.

Charity Wilson, legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA workers nationwide, said training is insufficient.

"They should have a level of training that includes how to interact with others at the airport, whether law enforcement or the general public," she said.

Like TSA agents, airport workers in Fort Lauderdale are instructed how to take care of themselves, not how to help travelers.

To get their security badges, airport workers must watch a video, "Surviving an Active Shooter," which is not specific to airports. It is nine minutes of grisly violence, with men armed with pistols or shotguns shooting people at a college and a workplace storage area.

The training is inadequate, said Sharon Pringle, who works at the airport's Delta Sky Club and as a checkpoint agent in front of the security screening area.

"That video is nothing," she said. "They give you little tips, but it's not like a literal training."

On Jan. 6, she was in the Delta Sky Club at Terminal 2 when she heard the screams from the baggage area from the actual shooting. She huddled with a crowd being guarded by a sheriff's deputy.

As the hours stretched on, passengers kept asking her what was happening, assuming from her uniform and airport security badge that she had information. But she had nothing to tell them.

"We, the airport workers, are in many ways responsible for these passengers' lives," she said. "I feel training topics should at least include procedures in how to respond to emergencies, like instructions on how to assist the elderly and the disabled passengers."

Helene O'Brien, state director of the Service Employees International Union that represents airport workers, said employees didn't know what to tell passengers who turned to anyone in uniform for help.

"There was just mass confusion and panic after the mythical second shooting," O'Brien said.

"We've spoken to workers. None of them have been through any significant drills or training for what to do."

Capello, the airport security director, disagreed that workers were unprepared. "I can assure you that the employees that work here at Fort Lauderdale airport are very aware of what's going to happen after, or during, an active shooter event at this airport. There should be no surprise to anyone what occurred that day here."

The airport conducts annual training exercises in which law enforcers, airport leaders, airline representatives and the TSA sit at a table and role-play how to respond in emergencies. The 2015 exercise dealt specifically with what to do after a shooter has been "neutralized," but according to meeting minutes, the exercise did not envision later reports of gunfire and passengers spontaneously running from every terminal.

"Almost every event has reports of more than one shooter, even though we see almost all the events are single shooters," said Pete Blair, a professor of criminal justice at Texas State University.

Capello said the airport offers voluntary security awareness training in addition to the video Pringle saw, and the instructions differ based on a person's role in an emergency - from law enforcement to paramedics to airline ticket takers.

"You don't teach the barista at Starbucks how to take out an active shooter."

'No water, no sitting, no restrooms'

At 3:26 p.m., 2½ hours after the actual shooting and one hour after the false reports of gunshots began to erupt, Sheriff Israel went on TV to say that investigators had found no other shooters or shots fired, but people could not leave the airport.

"They'll be no movement in or about the airport until our SWAT teams give me real-time information that it's safe. Right now, as we're talking, this scene is considered fluid and active."

Told little of what was going on, passengers remained on sidewalks, on the tarmac and on planes for hours more.

Airline attendants and ground crews gave out bottled water sporadically. Seating was sparse.

"No water, no sitting, no restrooms," said Philip Dubois, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who wrote to the Broward County Commission to complain after he and his wife fled Terminal 3 and found themselves on the tarmac for hours. "I think the most important thing was that there was just no information. Nobody really was there to say, 'Folks, for a while you'll be here, then you'll be there.' Or, 'We've had this happen at the airport, and we've been asked by the FBI to keep you all here.' Nothing like that."

After the shooting, a message was broadcast on the public address system in Terminal 2: "There has been a report of an emergency. Proceed calmly to the nearest exit and leave the building immediately." An alarm sounded as pandemonium broke out.

But passengers said they were left in the dark for most of the day after that. Many wondered why the airport did not use microphones or bullhorns after reports of additional shots swept through all four terminals.

Frank Biancucci, of Ontario, Canada, a retired deputy fire chief, spent seven hours on the tarmac and five more on a sidewalk. He wrote to the county frustrated about the lack of information about security on the tarmac, plans for leaving the airport and ways to obtain food and water.

"The lunacy of this is that in our area there were thousands of people that desperately wanted information on what was happening, and I can tell you from the time that we were on the tarmac, a collective voice of leadership or direction was absent."

For some, this period was an especially agonizing and painful wait. Calls to 911 for medical help included a 2-year-old described as lethargic, a heart patient with no medication, an elderly woman suffering from Parkinson's disease in distress, an 8-year-old vomiting and an 88-year-old woman who had collapsed.

Airport spokesman Greg Meyer said information was limited deliberately. "We didn't know who the good guys were and who the bad guys were," he said.

Authorities said they could not release people from the airport sooner because they were not sure whether an accomplice to accused shooter Santiago was quietly milling around or trying to escape detection, on the tarmac or elsewhere.

Some passengers had their pictures taken, their ID cards scrutinized, police reports say. Police detained others for questioning, patted them down, drew guns on them.

Assistant County Administrator Alan Cohen said airport managers were not in charge and could not release people from the airport if they wanted to.

"The sheriff was the incident commander," he said. "He was in control of everything going on with the passengers."

Cohen said he was not trying to deflect blame but emergency protocol dictates that in a crime scene, the sheriff is in charge. "The airport personnel could not do anything without the sheriff giving direction," he said.

Meyer, the airport spokesman, said law enforcement prevented airport personnel from moving about the airfield to distribute provisions to passengers. "We were told to shelter in place until law enforcement searched the entire airport."

He said it was not feasible for the airport's team to provide water and food to passengers stranded on the tarmac with reports of an active threat.

Israel told the Sun Sentinel that, with the possibility of another gunman, he didn't want anyone to be shot while bringing water to passengers. "We didn't want people moving."

It's not clear what role if any the FBI played in locking down the airport, but Israel said once federal authorities thought terrorism might be involved, the FBI took command. He said he did not remember what time that occurred, and the FBI would not comment.

The Red Cross tried to reach passengers with food and water but were initially prevented from entering the airport by law enforcement officials. They were allowed in later, but only to areas that had been cleared, according to a Red Cross spokesman.

Spokesman Roberto Baltodano declined to elaborate, including when the Red Cross got aid to passengers, and directed questions to the Sheriff's Office.

Capello, the airport security chief, said the actions taken by officials Jan. 6 were done "to protect the public and employees at this airport."

What occurred Jan. 6, he said, was a self-evacuation beyond the airport's control.

"I'm very comfortable with the decisions that were made that day," Capello said.

Some airport security experts agree that the panic in Fort Lauderdale would have been unmanageable.

"We'd all like to think it's going to be some orderly evacuation like we all learned in elementary school when the fire alarm went off," said Jeffrey Price, a former director at Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport and lead author of "Practical Aviation Security: Predicting and Preventing Future Threats."

"It's hard to direct a bunch of people who are running for their lives and give them evacuation orders when they're trampling over you and through any exit door they can find."

Gridlock

The Broward Sheriff's Office did not give the all-clear until just before 7 p.m., freeing passengers to leave the airport.

Fort Lauderdale airport policies call for an organized, supervised exit.

An evacuation plan, obtained by the Sun Sentinel through a public records request, spells out the responsibilities of the airport, airlines and Sheriff's Office after an emergency such as a fire, explosion or imminent threat. It details where personnel should report and who should direct passengers.

Fort Lauderdale airport officials have refused to release a separate plan, which addresses active shooter situations, citing security concerns.

The evacuation plan says after a threat is cleared, TSA employees are to be allowed back into the building first, followed by airlines and concessions workers and then customers.

The keys to a successful evacuation, the plan says, are remaining calm, leading people to safety and maintaining an orderly exit from the airport.

The evacuation after the all-clear on Jan. 6 was anything but orderly.

Roads around the airport had been shut down for hours, and dozens of buses sent to take people to a relief center set up at Port Everglades got stuck in traffic and needed police escorts to get through.

It took the rest of the night to move about 7,000 passengers to the port, where most arranged for rides to hotels or their homes with family, friends and transportation services, said airport spokesman Allan Siegel.

That traffic further clogged roads around the port. "We were gridlocked," said Broward Mayor Barbara Sharief.

The logjam left Darla and James Eberly, of Ohio, stranded on a plane on the tarmac for about six hours before they were let into the airport. After going to baggage claim, they joined thousands of other people on a curb waiting for buses.

They waited there for five more hours, she said.

Some exhausted people were pushing each other and running in front of full buses to stop them as they were driving by, she said. "It was getting crazy and you couldn't get answers from anybody."

Once at the port, Eberly, who has multiple sclerosis, was given a bottle of water, a bag of chips, a pillow and blanket. She slept on the floor.

In an interview with the Sun Sentinel, she said the lack of sleep and food aggravated her illness.

"This has been a costly, frustrating experience," she said, "and the only way I can describe it is we felt like we were treated like criminals and held like hostages."

The last buses filled with passengers didn't leave the airport until about 1 a.m., 12 hours after Santiago had been taken into custody.

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Information from: Sun Sentinel , http://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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